2012 DJ Controller Roundup: My Top Ten Picks for the best DJ Controllers

If have been on this site, a little less than a year ago I had a post that focused on some portable bags designed for DJ mixer/midi controllers and included a brief comparison of a few models that were fresh on the market.

I will stress again that every DJ, whether amateur or pro, should consider using the 2 leading software programs that are most suited for today’s technological standards:  Serato Itch, and my favorite of choice, Traktor Pro.  Now, there are a handful of companies that offer their own integrated software, but they do NOT stack up in terms of software reliability and features.   I will also give a much deserved honorable mention to Ableton Live, which is really a production based software, but has surfaced in many DJ setups on a lot of floors.

For a brief 101 on usb/midi controllers, you need 3 things: (1) a laptop or computer;  (2) DJ software that will make you the star and keep all your music together; and (3) a mixer controller, usb powered.

First, a review of some key features to look for and what they mean:

Key Feature: Independent channel LED strips

Why?

You want to be able to navigate wisely and see which channels are on while you mix.  Very important role during a live performance.  It also reduces error.

Key Feature: XLR outs

Why?

XLR is a type of cable that is very reliable in the professional arena.  The big plus in this type of cable is not just the balanced signal quality, but its reliability in assuring a solid tight connection to your source, and it is very very tough to accidentally remove, unless there’s foul play in the DJ booth!

Key Feature: Independent Gain Control

Why?

You need to have control over your signal level for each independent channel.  When mixing in the digital age, you may encounter a file that is recorded at a lower volume, so you need that added extra headroom and the option of matching levels or your performance will suck badly.

Key Feature: Digital Ins & Outs (Spdif or Aes/EBU)

Why?

It is a technological advantage in this age to work in digital.  It is tough to explain to beginners, but it generally involves a lot less hassle if you are going to record straight into your computer or in the process of converting audio files when copying, and it won’t encounter the problems associated with analog signals like hum and ground noises.  And, it is much easier to manage as a fixed signal.

Key Feature: Mobility and/or portability

Why?

We have evolved folks!  Why break your back?  One of the reasons digital DJing is taking over is mainly the need to not worry about lugging around hundreds of CD’s and players like CDJs or turntables.  The controller is a hybrid of 2 turntables and a mixer.  Yes- all in one.  So, now you get it!!!

SO LET”S BEGIN!!!!

So here is my top ten list of the best choices currently on the market:

10th PLACE: Native Instruments Traktor Kontrol S2

Price: $599 (NOW reduced to $399!)

Software platform: Traktor Pro 2 (bundled)

Pros: Built well; bundled with Traktor Pro; superb controls; Traktor plug and play; light; very easy to move around on the go;

Cons: No dedicated filter knobs; still- no XLR outs; no digital outs; too expensive compared to the Kontrol S4; can only control 2 decks; 4 cue points; limited functions and controls for the asking price; not a big step up for Native Instruments

9th PLACE: Numark NS6

Price: $899

Software platform: Optional; Serato Itch (bundled)

Pros: XLR outs, built very well; strip search slider; nice spacial layout for pros & beginners; great for DJ’s that are crossing over and afraid of digital; awesome vinyl simulation control

Cons: Buttons a little too soft and sticky; no independent LED channel strips; cue points too close to jog wheels; loop controls under par; your laptop will fight it for space on the table;  too big and too heavy for mobile use; not Traktor friendly; also needs a reliable case or coffin, or else you will have technical issues on the road!

Comments: Not the choice for a promising controllerist!

8th PLACE Novation Twitch

Price: $499

Software platform: Serato Itch (bundled)

Pros: One word: GAMECHANGER; Excellent price; more of a performance controller than a mixer; touch strip makes it a blast at parties; has easy-to-use 4 performance modes; mic in; on site beat grid adjust; touchstrip is a game changer for cuing up; 8 cue points on touch pads; dedicated channel LED strips; excellent use of space for features!

Cons: not a traditional DJ controller; no jog wheels for scratching; 4 deck control very tough to follow;  browse control on the right can be a bit confusing; May be too advanced for novices; needs better knobs; no XLR outs; more for controlling a track rather than mixing

Comments: Can be a wet dream for controllerists!  I personally love this unit!

7th PLACE: Reloop Jockey 3

Price: $699

Software platform: Traktor LE (bundled)

Pros: Great size for portability; designed for startup DJ’s; excellent build; signature Reloop browser knob; cue-mix fader; simple layout; four cue points; dedicated filter knob; can control up to 4 decks; booth output added

Cons: loop buttons can be a little confusing; scratch response a little under par; master volume control next to gain control may cause problems when recording; no independent LED channel strips; 4 deck mixing may be hard to follow; slightly overpriced

Comments:  Reloop- it’s about time!

6th PLACE: Denon mc-3000

Price: $799-$899

Software platform: Optional, but Traktor friendly; Virtual DJ LE (bundled)

Pros: Traktor mapping plug and play; digital out (awesome!); computer crash-proof stand alone mixer; mic input; 4 channels; solid build quality makes it a steel tank; portable size; colorful lit buttons; excellent jog wheels for the size; channel strip LED option; controls up to 4 decks

Cons: too damn cramped on controls; no XLR outs; loop control function poorly designed; no booth out- DENON got rid of it?;  a bit too small for working DJ’s;

5th PLACE Numark N-4

Price: $699 (I saw it for $499 !  WOW!)

Software platform: Serato Itch (bundled)

Pros: Great build quality; XLR outs; colorful channel layout; dedicated booth out; Serato Itch bundled makes it a bang for the buck at a $499 street price; great for startup DJ’s

Cons: No dedicated LED channel strips; jogs wheels take up too much real estate; cross fade assignment buttons can be accidentally triggered; too many settings on the underside may be prone to breakage; slightly cramped; pitch control placed too high;

Comment: Great price if you are on a budget!

4th PLACE: Pioneer DDJ- ERGO-V

Price: $599

Software platform: optional;  Pioneer Virtual DJ LE (bundled)

Pros: Excellent layout; brilliant lights; moderate quality  jog wheels; modest price and bang for the buck; optional angled design; can do up to 4 decks;  my choice for startup DJ’s

Cons: Build quality not recommended for mobile transport; very limited output options; no channel strip LED meters; 4 deck mixing can be a bit confusing to follow; no dedicated filter knob; no mic input

Comment: When all the smoke clears, you cannot beat it for the price!

3rd PLACE: Pioneer CDJ-2000 (two) and DJM-2000 mixer

Price for complete system: $1699 + $1699 + $2499 = $5897 (Ouch!)

Software platform: Optional

Pros: Still a powerful club standard for many high-profile gigs and used by many DJ’s; has the best signature jog-wheel on the market; stand alone CD and DVD controller system (computer crash-proof); quality build controllers; USB flash drive friendly for file storage and linking; integrated software system that is not computer or laptop dependent; excellent button layout; 6″ beautiful LCD display; easy to troubleshoot technical problems due its 3 piece system design.

Cons: NOT a traditional USB/Midi controller;  way too expensive (over $5000); not easy to carry around for portability; too heavy for functionality; no plug n’ play mappings; lacks some desired controllist features; button layout a bit archaic compared to newly designed models;  mixer is a bit oversaturated on settings; Pioneer mixer faders and pots are not the most premium in my book for the huge asking price.

Comment: Good luck if you can afford it, but be prepared to lose if you want to battle!

2nd PLACE: Vestax VCI-400 Ean Golden Edition (to be released)

Price: $1099 (my original guess- $999- $1299)

Software platform: Optional

Pros: Excellent design and quality build; DJ Tech Tools certified and co-designed with DJ Tech Tools mappings; XLR outs, LED meters on each channel strip; 4 loop buttons (a first); instant recording feature; colorful lights on pads; light and portable

Cons: Too expensive; low visibility on control labeling; Vestax metal knobs have a bad rap on lifespan; button layout just a little too cramped and a little too complicated for mid-level controllerists; no digital outs

Comments: Will be popular with a lot of folks and rises to the top of the heap like a bullet.  Be prepared to slay the competition!

1st PLACE: Native Instruments Traktor Kontrol S4  (WINNING!)

Price: $799-$899

Software platform: Traktor Pro 2 (bundled)

Pros: Still the best choice for Traktor users; plug and play and flawless integration with software;  layout set the standard for many newer models on the market; excellent quality on the jog wheels; overall quality of parts; independent LED channel strips; excellent custom mapping integration; smooth flawless design on ergonomics

Cons: no XLR ins or outs; could have added some colored knobs for improved navigation; no digital outs (SPDIF or AES/EBU) ; could have crammed in more cue point pads; no mic in;

Comments: Still the mother of DJ controller innovation.

Conclusion: There are more and more controllers to come, but I hope this top ten guide will help those who need to have a better understanding of what to look for in choosing the right piece of gear, and get your bearings straight if you are in the process of buying.  Budget is very important, so why spend the money if you really don’t need certain features that don’t appeal to your needs.  There are some ground level controllers on the market that start as low as $299 & up, but when dealing with Traktor and Serato, the software giants, it is important to be up-to-standard with what these programs have to offer.  So why get stuck with a toy if you can get a decent piece of gear for a couple of hundred dollars more…  Your audience will take you more seriously- even if it’s your pet cat in the bedroom.

Also, there are other controllers that may be ranked high by many other users that did not make it to my top ten, but I assure you that there are relevant reasons that involve price and quality.

Another serious question to ask yourself before you purchase a controller is whether you want to be a DJ or a controllerist -or a combination of BOTH!  A DJ can a bit of both, but is mainly a play and get paid type of mentality as opposed to the controllerist persona, who is more interested in changing the structure of each track by altering its sound and arrangement in an elevated artistic sense.  If you are the latter, you have the mentality of a producer, so you may want to choose a controller that either gives you the best of both worlds or can focus more on the technical aspects of achieving a higher level of controllerism.  This top ten is more suited for the DJ than the controllerist, but I do believe that the controlleriist mentality is the new face of DJing.

So, as they say, choose your weapons wisely.

Thanks for reading!

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20 thoughts on “2012 DJ Controller Roundup: My Top Ten Picks for the best DJ Controllers

  1. I’m liking the Novation Twitch Controller also ,but what is scaring me is that I see some posts on the internet that the sound output is lower than other controllers. Is it really that bad? Or are people overreacting? I’d being using it with 2 Alto Professional Truesonic 15″ Powered Speakers. (I’m not sure if that matters or not),

    • The concept of the Twitch is amazing. It is ahead of the pack in that arena, but you do lose out in audio quality. My fix is getting a small Mackie mixer for around $150, and not only will it serve as a safety net instead of crashes, but you will also have a pretty good EQ and higher gain availability to enhance your sound output. It is another item to carry though…

      There is also a post on the Novation site that addresses this issue:
      http://www.novationmusic.com/answerbase/en/article.php?id=528

      I hope this helps.

      • I have an Alto Zephyr ZMX122FX Mixer. I believe that it is similar to the Mackie mixer that you are referring to.
        Do you agree?
        Quote from Novation:
        However, we do recommend the following hardware solutions, all of which we have now tested or are testing in house. All our tests involve comparing the output levels to an industry standard:

        Combining the Booth and Main outputs:

        Whilst this means no separate booth output, it will double the output level of Twitch. You can use both the booth and main output, and route them to two channels of the mixer. This will add 6dB to the output of Twitch. It also offers additional gain from the second channel of the mixer.

        Buying a mini line mixer.

        We have tried and tested some affordable line output mixers, each providing enough output level to take Twitch in line with the output level of a professional CDJ. These units are light-weight and affordable.

        So did you route the Booth and Main Outputs to 2 channels of your mixer?
        Did you see a dramatic increase in the output level?

        Thanks,
        Ray

      • I do not own a twitch, but was able to mess around with one. We were not in a crucial sound quality scenario like a club, but if you are happy with your mixer, then you can incorporate it into your setup.

        You have to remember that a lot of these controllers do skimp on sound quality output- if you are comparing them to the good ol days of vinyl with a Urei mixer. A little sound engineering may be needed with a extra piece of sound processing gear like a compressor or a decent pre-amp or mixer.

        If you are going mobile in the digital age, you may have to chooses what you lug conservatively.

    • Right now:
      My fave is the new Vestax VCI-400
      still the NI S4 with the new F1 add-on due later this month
      also
      the novation Twitch
      and there are also other companies like Fader fox and livid that do awesome ones

  2. Are the softwares uniquely tied into the hardware or if we can get the full software versions from other sources, couldn’t we get cheaper controller options and still obtain good results, and if so which one would you recommend

    • All controllers are software based for use with computers, but if you want CD’s or other analog sources, there are some stand-alone controllers.

      Most controllers like Numark and Pioneer have developed their unique software for the controller. This is definitely a cost-cutting option, but try to get a controller bundled with Itch or Traktor.

      If you want a lower price, I would look at Numark or Hercules. Their new models are not bad, and also try Reloop. Personally, I prefer Vestax or Native Instruments. It all depends on your budget.

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